It's easy to beat up on Google for reportedly slowing down the pace of Google TV rollouts amid some less-than-glowing reviews. The New York Times, citing unnamed sources in a report over the weekend, says that Google is going back to the drawing board on the Google TV software and has asked its manufacturing partners to pull the plug on any big flashy coming-out parties at next month's Consumer Electronics Show.
But instead of beating up Google for even attempting to do something as bold as trying to change television viewing habits, I choose to applaud Google for recognizing that the first attempt at Google TV had some shortcomings and for taking it back to the lab to fix what didn't work.
I've said from the beginning that I like the concept behind Google TV - blur the line between traditional broadcast television and the growing list of Web-based video offerings by replacing the on-screen channel guide with a search box. But that didn't mean I was a fan of Google TV out of the gate.
As other companies have known for years, trying to bring the Web into the living room is no easy task. Old habits die hard and the idea of using a keyboard and mouse to search for TV programming is about as unwelcoming as putting a bulky desktop computer in the entertainment center - a common move by some Web TV predecessors.
Still, the shortcomings of the hardware and software wasn't Google's biggest problem. Before Google TV or any other variation of it can generate some mainstream interest, Google needs to start doing some educational outreach - and not just to consumers.
Google needs to reach out and work with potential Hollywood partners - notably, the traditional television networks - so that they understand that Google TV isn't trying to lure viewers away from the programming but instead is trying to expand the reach of those programs. (They're sure to have some questions for Google about the advertising models, as well.)
Yes, Google needs the Logitechs and the Samsungs and the Sonys of the world to help get its technology into the living room. But it can't just leapfrog over the networks and other content providers. Google has to work with the networks to make sure that they understand Google's motivation, strategy and long-term vision.
Television viewing is almost sacred - and anything that rocks the boat is sure to face a long, uphill struggle before it can even begin to make a dent. Consider the DVR, which hit the scene nearly a decade ago with big expensive TiVo boxes. Back then, the idea of pausing or rewinding live TV was a total head-scratcher and the mere suggestion that people zip past commercials while watching time-shifted television was blasphemous.
Today, the cable and satellite folks build DVRs into their set-top boxes, selling consumers on the flexibility of being able to watch whatever they want from wherever they want. It's no longer a deterrent, but rather a positive differentiator.
Google has the potential to fill a void that TV watching consumers don't even realize they have - just like DVRs gave us something new to enhance the viewing experience. But it needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink what it really wants Google TV to become. Bringing a PC-like Web browser to the living room screen - along with a keyboard and mouse - isn't the winning approach.
There's a there there when it comes to revolutionizing TV - and so far, Google has come the closest to making it happen. But there's still a lot of work to be done.
I certainly hope The New York Times' unnamed sources are right about Google TV at CES. The product could benefit from a time-out while Google figures out its next steps. For Google TV, it's not a matter of "if" but rather "when."
Someday, Google will revolutionize television - but today is not that day.